ALBION — Matthew Jackson has seen more of the world than most.
The 6-foot-5 native of Kentucky has long had an appetite for adventure, well before he and his wife moved to Albion four years ago. The 43-year-old estimated he’s hiked over 10,000 miles in his life, including treks across the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas.
The biggest feather in Jackson’s cap is arguably conquering “the triple crown of hiking,” the informal recognition of completion of the three major U.S. long-distance hiking trails: the Appalachian (AT), Pacific Crest (PCT) and the Continental Divide (CDT). He accomplished the feat between 2002 and 2006, taking a year off between each hike.
“Within the first couple weeks, I was still in Maine on the Appalachian Trail and I saw the long, skinny Pacific Crest Trail maps and saw it went through Sequoia, Kings Canyon, went near Mt. Rainier and all these other things,” Jackson recalled. “I compared that to the Appalachian Trail, so within the first weeks, I said, ‘I’m definitely going to do the PCT.’ Once I finished the PCT, it was like, ‘Well I should just go for the third one, because now it’s a way of life.'”
On Oct. 13, Jackson was the guest speaker for the North Country Trail Association meeting in Albion, sharing with the group his favorite memories and some of the challenges from his six-year quest.
He said it was while hiking the Appalachian Trail where he picked up his trail name, “Pi.”
Jackson was 23 at the time, and said the film “A Beautiful Mind” had recently come out about mathematician John Nash. He had graduated from the University of Louisville with an engineering degree, and had taken to leaving mathematical riddles in trail journals at each shelter along the route. So his friend, who went by the trail alias “Gravy,” suggested the “Pi” moniker.
Jackson said he saved what little money he had from a seasonal job at Glacier National Park, and used it to pay for food and occasionally shelter at a hotel or hostel, but otherwise mostly slept in spartan conditions under the stars. His pack typically included a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, a cover for a makeshift shelter, water treatment, a few items of clothing and a book.
Jackson said crossing the raging streams in the Sierra mountain range was the most perilous thing he did along his hikes, noting how they were prone to rapidly rise due to snow melt. He also had one encounter with a grizzly bear, albeit from a safe distance, in the southern end of Glacier National Park. He regularly hitchhiked to and from trailheads and towns, saying one driver brandished a gun as a warning not to try anything funny.
While hiking was solitary at times, Jackson connected with a community of fellow hikers along various points on his route, providing him company and resources.
“You form a little tribe going through this really intense thing together,” Jackson said. “You get closer to the people you hike with. After you hike with someone for a few days, you get to know them really well. You see them in good moods, bad moods, when they are hungry, when their foot hurts or whatever.”
Following his triple crown feat, Jackson traveled Europe and continued long-distance hiking, working seasonal jobs and teaching ecology to kids in Georgia and California. Eventually, he made his way to Ohio where he met Julie Cousins. The couple moved to Albion in 2017, where she accepted a position as assistant professor of kinesiology at Albion College. The man known as “Pi” became an adjunct professor in math at the college.
The pair married in 2018, taking their wedding photos at Whitehouse Nature Center, which has 5 miles of trails on some 140 acres located on the campus of Albion College. They said they didn’t realize when they moved to Albion it was in the crossroads of the longest trail in the U.S. — the North Country Trail — and the longest state-designated trail — the Iron Belle Trail. While they haven’t conquered the entirety of those trails, the two said they are fond of running trails around Calhoun County, notably Ott Biological Preserve in Emmett Township.
Cousins’ background as an ultramarathon runner has forced Jackson to pick up his pace a touch.
“After we got married, we decided to do an Ironman Triathlon. We like to do different, challenging things,” Cousins said. “You don’t have to go and do the really long stuff. You don’t have to do a day hike or even a couple hours, or a short walk, it helps so much. Exercise is medicine and is so important for staying healthy.”
While hiking and running thousands of miles is no small task, Jackson concurred that long-distance hiking is something everyone can enjoy.
“Physically, anybody can do it,” he said. “I just fell in love with hiking and the beautiful scenery.”
Contact reporter Nick Buckley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley